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Canon Lenses: Buying Guide & Top Recommendations

written by: digitaldan1•edited by: Amy Carson•updated: 12/21/2010

Choose the right Canon camera lenses for your camera kit. Whether you're a pro, serious amateur or beginner, this buying guide will help you pick the right gear.

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    Introduction

    Canon offers dozens of lenses ranging from its top of the line "L" series lenses down to affordable kit lens for entry level dSLRs. Since it would be all too easy to just pick L series lenses, this article looks at some favorite choices broken down by "pro," "serious amateur," and "beginner" categories in order to offer affordable choices for the widest variety of photographers possible.

    Let's list the lenses profiled in this article by category:

    Pro Lenses

    Serious Amateur Lenses

    Amateur Lenses

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    Images

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    Canon 70-200 2.8L IS USM Lens

    Thinking of becoming a pro photographer? If so, this is the first lens to put on your shopping list. Pretty much any version of this lens from the original non-IS model to the newest edition serves as a workhouse for pro shooters all over the world. The 70-200 focal length is versatile and can be used for a wide variety of applications including portraiture, candid and sports photography. Add to that a super fast 2.8 maximum aperture that makes this lens as useful indoors as it is outside, plus very useful for isolating subjects thanks to the minimal depth of field such a large aperture offers.

    The superlatives for this lens don't end there though. In addition to being solidly built (and weather sealed) this lens offers blazing fast autofocus, just perfect for sports, action and nature photography. The lens comes with a rotating tripod collar, which makes it easy to switch the camera from horizontal to vertical while mounted on a tripod or monopod while balancing the weight of camera and lens comfortably.

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    Canon 300 2.8L IS USM Lens

    At $4399, this one's a budget buster. Incredibly fast and razor sharp, the Canon 300 2.8L IS USM lens is ideal for sports, nature and portrait photography and is as rugged as lenses come. The 300 2.8L uses drop in filters and offers a rotating tripod collar. It's also weather sealed. Whether used by itself, or with the 1.4x tele-converter, this lens produces beautiful images while performing reliably and consistently.

    Despite its rugged construction and hefty size, this lens can be handheld for shots, although a good monopod is highly recommended. It's a staple of news and sports photographers. While any Canon version of this lens is special, the newest versions offer image stabilization to gain you an extra f-stop or two of stability.

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    Canon Camera Lenses for Every Class of PhotographerThere are Canon camera lenses for every kind of photographer. This article will help you figure out which are best for you.
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    Canon 16-35 2.8L USM Lens

    Canon's large aperture, wide-angle zoom provides a 2 to 1 zoom ratio at the super wide angle range while minimizing distortion and other wide angle problems. The lens is a staple of working pros, particularly ones who need to work with available light indoors such as news, sports and wedding photographers.

    This is a good, workable focal length range whether you're working with a full frame sensor such as the Canon 1Ds series of cameras or one of the 1.6x multiplier sized sensors such as the ones found in the 60D.

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    Canon 1.4x tele-converter

    Okay, it's not truly a lens, but Canon's 1.4x tele-converter is a fantastic add-on to any lens capable of accepting it. (Lenses must have a recessed rear element to accept the 1.4x, so many lenses are not compatible with it.)

    Tele-converters are supposed to cost you light, focusing speed and image sharpness. The Canon 1.4x tele-converter does steal one full f-stop worth of light, but its effect on focussing speed and image sharpness is almost non-existent. When combined with either the 70-200 2.8L or any of Canon's telephoto lenses that can accept it, this tele-converter delivers. If you're a pro sports or wildlife photographer, this optic should be in your camera bag.

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    Canon 70-200 4L IS USM Lens

    An f-stop slower and hundreds of dollars cheaper than its big brother, this is an outstanding lens that offers fast autofocus and reliable performance. Rugged and versatile, the Canon 70-200 4L IS USM Lens is easily handheld and holds its own in almost any shooting conditions except possibly for low light work. Still, with the IS version, you do gain at least an f-stop or two worth of stability for handholding.

    If you're a serious amateur whose budget makes building an L series lens collection challenging, this lens is a nice option. The loss of the f-stop is a big deal for a news or candid photographer, but with the current generation of dSLRs performing superbly at higher ISO levels, that loss isn't as big a deal for most other shooters.

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    Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM Lens

    If your budget precludes Canon's top of the line glass, have no fear. There are still some outstanding optics out there that can make your photography better. Canon's EF-S 17-55mm 2.8 IS USM is a versatile lens that makes a great first lens when you're putting a camera kit together. Note that the EF-S designation means the lens can only be used on Canon lenses with a 1.6x multiplier equivalent (Rebel series, xxD series, 7D) otherwise known as APS-C sensor cameras. An EF-S lens can not physically be mounted on a Canon camera that has a larger sensor.

    With the 17-55 you've got an optic that gives you a modest wide angle view up through a short telephoto. This is a great lens for family get togethers, individual portraits, landscape photography and more. It's also a good basic "walking around" lens and is probably the optic you'll leave on your camera most of the time.

    At close to $1,000, this lens may cost more than your camera, but it will give you a quality optic that will out last your next four or five camera bodies. (I've worked with 30 plus year old Canon camera lenses that still performed flawlessly even after three decades of hard use.)

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    Canon Camera Lenses Buying GuideGood lenses aren't cheap, but you get what you pay for. Here's a guide to choosing the right Canon camera lenses for your camera kit.
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    Canon 400 5.6L IS USM Lens

    Two f-stops slower and thousands of dollars cheaper than its big brother, this super telephoto is still a popular choice of pro sports and nature photographers because of its length, AF speed and hand holdability. While it's $1200 price is hardly cheap, if you do nature or sports photography, this lens will prove invaluable. As an added bonus, if you're working with a Canon 1D series camera (which can autofocus an f8 equivalent lens) then you can use this lens with a 1.4 tele-converter and still use autofocus.

    While you'll probably be more comfortable using this lens on a tripod, it is light enough that you can hand hold it if you want. This is very useful for following birds in flight or wide receivers in motion.

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    Canon 75-300 4-5.6 IS USM Lens

    This $400 lens provides good reach for a modest price. It offers reasonably good auto focus, plus image stabilization while performing well when lighting conditions permit. Odds are you're not going to get a lot of use out of this lens indoors (unless using an add on flash unit) and it is a bit soft at its longest end, but considering its low price, this lens is still a good value.

    The 75-300 probably shouldn't be your first choice for lens to go with your new camera, but it can make a good second optic. It will do a nice job photographing the kids playing soccer or baseball and serve well for portraiture too. While it has its limitations, any lens in this price range will have similar issues.

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    Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 Lens II

    At less than $100 new, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 Lens shows how a simple prime lens can offer excellent results, great versatility and low price. This is a sharp lens that autofocuses well and gathers enough light to serve well indoors even without the use of flash. While its fixed focal length is a boring 50mm, on Canon's APS-C bodies it effectively becomes an 80mm equivalent, making it a nice lens for candids and portraiture.

    If you're on a really tight budget and have to shoot indoors a lot, then prime lenses are a good option. The same $1000 you'll spend on a 17-55 EF-S IS lens will buy you a 50 1.8, 100 2 and 20 2.8 giving you a versatile lens kit that will work well both indoors and out.

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    Conclusion

    Canon offers a huge variety of lenses at an equally huge range of prices. While this lens guide singles out some great optics, sometimes it's more important to match your lens choice to a specific photographic need. Also keep in mind, you tend to get what you pay for. There's a reason why Canon's L series lenses are so expensive. These optics features Canon's best glass, rugged construction, super fast auto focus and good light gathering capabilities. When you figure that an L series lens can be a trusty and valuable performer for three or four decades, the high price tag may not seem quite so daunting.

    I've been using Canon camera lenses and gear for a couple of decades. While I've also used third party lenses with good results, I've also suffered when changes in camera bodies have obsoleted those lenses. If you plan on buying a lens and holding on to it for a long time, you're probably better off staying with Canon optics.